A Framework For Innovation

I’m going to attempt to figure out what a framework for innovation looks like for a medium sized organisation (less than 250 staff). This will largely be from my own perspective of working in social housing – so expect this to be slanted towards public and third sector work.

Why?

It’s generally accepted that we need to innovate in order to keep up with the changing environment our organisations operate in. However, innovation has become a bit of an ambiguous term of late. Most people are starting to recognise it’s needed, but how does that actually translate into day to day actions?

I work in IT and innovation often arrives on my doorstep in the form of “How can we do X?” or “Why can’t we do Y” and more often “I’ve seen Z  at <other place> and I think we need to do that too!”. At this point, the emphasis tends to be on action (fix my problem) rather than experimentation (are you sure there is a problem?). Once a project has been defined it’s incredibly difficult to halt or deviate should influencing factors change. The more resource that’s assigned to deliberate on it, the less likely it will be allowed to fail even if all signs indicate that it should. As humans we are pre-programmed with a need to make things work.

“Creativity Loves Constraints”
– Marrisa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo

Having a framework to explore new ideas and fail fast(er) should accelerate decision making, inform the business strategy and enable course change sooner in response to demands inside/outside the organisation. A framework for innovation enables experimentation with concepts before there’s a crushing need to embrace them.

I’m going to attempt to figure out precisely what that looks like here. This will be a Working Out Loud exercise, so I’ll be forming thoughts and concepts as we go along. Feedback is always welcome, so if you think there’s a flaw in my logic or that I’m talking gibberish – pipe up! Let’s fix it together.

How?

I thought I’d tackle this by identifying the main activities or themes first and then iterate on each one, adding more detail as we go.

I envisage the journey of an idea would go something like this…

  1. Frame – focus people on a problem or challenge
  2. Collect – a method for staff to submit ideas
  3. Evaluate – some way of initially sorting out the plausible from the unworkable
  4. Test – flesh the idea out and test assumptions without expending too much time/money
  5. Pilot – small scale version of the idea to see if it’s sustainable & viable
  6. Deliver – idea moves from ‘the lab’ over to the business plan

Failure is the norm for innovation, it should be recognised as a standard part of the creative process. Rapid iteration is the order of the day rather than success. This should be communicated to everyone very early on to remove the stigma around failure. Not all ideas will make it through all the steps. In fact, many might only make it through the first two. The idea is to avoid zombie project syndrome and kill anything that has no immediate value as soon as possible. This will allow for a new idea to take its place.

“The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.”
– Henry Ford

It’s important to document every stage of the journey as changing conditions inside/outside the organisation might allow an originally shelved idea to become viable. Documentation should be good enough so that months or years down the line it’s easy to understand who was involved, what was tested and what made it unworkable. Essentially it’s about building a museum of failed products which keeps newly submitted ideas from re-treading old ground and repeating the same mistakes.

In the next post I’ll be tackling the first step in the process : Frame.

Lots of this work is influenced by @PaulBromford, @ThomasHartland, @whatsthepont and @ShirleyAyres – you should go an follow them all immediately if this topic interests you.

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You want Innovation? Learn to love failure!

Innovation – a huge buzzword that has been doing the rounds increasingly for the last year or so. Technology is driving change at such a rapid pace that organisations are looking to embrace a ‘culture of innovation’ in order to be more responsive. But what does that actually mean?

In order to innovate, you need ideas. Where do these ideas come from? Traditionally the appraisal process (where line manager reviews staff performance and sets objectives) should bring ideas out into the open and get them into the business plan. In terms of sourcing ideas that are truly revolutionary that doesn’t seem to happen.

Why is that? Is it because people are not able to generate ideas ‘on demand’ during that yearly mandated period? Is it because organisational hierarchies subject anything new or challenging to ‘death by committee’? Is it because we’ve been fed a steady diet of risk aversion since the beginning of time? Is it because fluid innovation and rigid business strategy are almost opposing concepts?

I’m fortunate enough to work in a progressive organisation that is trying to make strides in these areas. But any organisation that has a rigid hierarchical structure will suffer from some or all of these road blocks to adopting a culture of innovation. It is a symptom of our workplaces being designed to tackle predictable tasks in an increasingly unpredictable world.

Let’s be really clear though, innovation is no magic wand. It is actually an inherently wasteful process that’s jam packed with failure. Even if you subscribe to a ‘fast failure’ model where you iterate rapidly through different decisions and directions you’re still working on projects that may never come to fruition.

However, we’re deluding ourselves if we pretend that there’s no failure in our normal working lives. We fail all the time, large and small, but most people have gotten good at mitigating it, spinning it or burying it. That’s a shame because we only really learn how to change things for the better when we can understand what went wrong.

So, what’s more desirable? – An intensive period of controlled failure that will deliver some valuable data in terms of what not to do. Or to continue on as we are, applying bandages to failing systems and processes and pretend that everything is okay.

Unfortunately, innovation is not just something that can be turned on like a tap. People need a sandbox in which to play and develop ideas without the crippling pressure to generate results. The key is to keep the invested resource (be that time or money) to an absolute minimum to start with. Fail fast, document your findings, move on to the next iteration or idea. Speed is essential. If you assume that 90% of the concepts you evaluate are destined to be shelved, you need to work your way through the chaff to get to the wheat as rapidly as possible. Even the chaff has a use. Imagine how valuable a few months worth of discarded ideas would be? Can you see any commonalities? Are we trying to do something we’ve already done before? Will this idea work now that external factors have changed?

Much of this thinking comes from the Silicon Valley start-up scene where small teams of developers try to capture the next technological zeitgeist before anyone else. The methodologies of Agile development are finding their way into mainstream thinking. Much of it is common sense. Build a minimum viable product (a workable prototype that has the core features) and release it. If it’s a success, iterate and build on top of what you’ve got. For those startups working long hours with meager initial funding, the key is to get to a functional product to market with as little resource wasted as possible before anyone else. That sounds pretty desirable no matter what sector you’re in huh?

Obviously, most organisations don’t have the luxury of a department dedicated to the pursuit of innovation. But in truth, I think it should be part of everyone’s job description to make it happen. It can’t radiate from one corner of the business or be demanded from the top. People need the time, authority and framework to go and experiment.

In order for any of this to work the stigma around failure needs to go. All the greatest innovators are prolific failures. What separates them from others is that they push forward and keep learning from their mistakes in search of a greater understanding. In essence, this is the sort of culture we need to start baking into organisations (particularly the public & third sector) to unleash that stored potential for creative problem solving in staff which is otherwise largely untapped.